In 1822, the Hungarian composer Béla Viktor János Bartók (1881-1945) came to London for the first time. He stayed at the home of Sir Duncan and Lady Wilson at 7 Sydney Place in South Kensington, as he was to do on all his later visits. The house now bears a blue plaque to commemorate Bartók’s visits (see here).
Folk music had always influenced Bartók’s music and he travelled extensively to study the music of other countries. In 1913, for instance, he went to North Africa to study Arabic folk music and in 1836, he went to Turkey, but his own backyard, so to speak, was not forgotten and he toured Hungary, Romania and Slovakia to collect folk songs. His collections are now kept at the Ethnographical Museum of Budapest and in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.(1) But music was not his only interest. He collected shells, plants, insects and Hungarian furniture.(2)
Bartók was strongly opposed to the ideas of the Nazis and abhorred Hungary’s siding with Germany. From the early 1930s, he refused to perform in Germany and after the outbreak of World War II, his anti-fascist views caused him more and more problems. In October 1940, he and his wife decided to flee to America, first sending his manuscripts on and following later themselves. Bartók died in New York in September 1945 of leukemia at the age of 64. His body was interred in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York, and it was only in the late 1980s that the political situation had changed enough for a request to transfer his body to Budapest for re-burial became possible. Hungary gave him a state funeral on July 7, 1988. He was then finally laid to rest alongside his wife Ditta who had died in 1982.
There were already statues for Bartók in Budapest, Brussels, and Paris before the one in London was unveiled on 2 October 2004 on a traffic island in South Kensington. It shows Bartók nattily dressed in coat and hat. The statue was designed by Imre Varga (1923-), one of Hungary’s most important living artists, who came to London to see the statue unveiled. The whole schedule for the festive day can be seen on the website of the Peter Warlock Society (see here). Peter Warlock had been instrumental in bringing Bartók to London in 1922 and his own music was greatly influenced by the way folk music was incorporated into Bartók’s. Unfortunately, the statue had to make way in April 2009 for road redevelopments and it was not until 24 September 2011 that it was repositioned and unveiled for a second time; quite close to where it was before. See for the old situation here (look for number 46) and for the second unveiling here. It is to be hoped that the statue does not have to be moved again and Bartók’s likeness in bronze with the little bird on the base of stainless steel leaves will remain where it is for anyone to see coming out of the Underground station.
(1) Man, January 1947, p. 14; Sylvia B. Parker, “Béla Bartók’s Arab Music Research and Composition” in Studia Musicologica, 49/3-4 (2008), pp. 407-458.
(2) Hugh D. Loxdale and Adalbert Balog, “Béla Bartók Musician, Musicologist, Composer … and Entomologist!” in Antenna, 33/4 (2009).